President Obama presents the Medal of Honor for Army Sgt. William Shemin to Ina Bass, left, and Elsie Shemin-Roth, who accepted the medal on behalf of their late father, at the White House, June 2, 2015. DOD screen shot.
June 3, 2015—President Barack Obama on Tuesday posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor—the nation’s highest honor for valor in combat—to two World War I veterans for their heroic actions in two separate battles in France nearly 100 years ago.
Private Henry Johnson was assigned to the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment during the war and Sgt. William Shemin was a rifleman assigned to the 47th Infantry Regiment.
“We are a nation—a people— who remember our heroes,” said Obama. “We take seriously our responsibility to only send them when war is necessary. We strive to care for them and their families when they come home. We never forget their sacrifice. And, we believe it’s never too late to say thank you.”
Johnson “became a legend” during “the early morning hours of May 15, 1918,” said Obama. A German raiding party attacked while he and a fellow soldier were serving sentry duty at a forward outpost in northern France. Both Johnson and the other soldier were injured during the attack.
Ignoring his wounds, Johnson emptied his magazine and then grabbed the only weapon he had left, his knife, and continued fighting the Germans. His actions saved his comrade, who was unconscious, from being taken prisoner.
Johnson, who was wounded 21 times, would become one of the first Americans to receive France’s highest award for valor, but he did not receive any medals from the United States until President Clinton awarded him the Purple Heart in 1996, said Obama.
Johnson’s “injuries left him crippled. He couldn’t find work. His marriage fell apart. And, in his early 30s, he passed away,” said Obama. “Now America can’t change what happened to Henry Johnson. We can’t change what happened to too many soldiers like him, who went uncelebrated because our nation judged them by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. But, we can do our best to make it right.”
On Aug. 7, 1918, Shemin, the Jewish son of Russian immigrants who lied about his age so he could enlist and fight for America, was “hunkered down in one trench” on the Western front with the allies, while the Germans were in another 150 yards away, said Obama.
For days the battle raged and soldiers were given two choices: venture into No Man’s Land and likely die, or stay in the trench and watch your comrades die. “William Shemin couldn’t stand to watch,” said Obama. “He ran out into the hell of No Man’s Land and dragged a wounded comrade to safety. Then he did it again, and again.”
As the number of officer casualties mounted, Shemin “stepped up and took command.” He reorganized “depleted squads” and led rescue missions when the fighting calmed down. For his actions, he was previously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
“As much as America meant to your father,” Obama told Shemin’s daughters, Elsi and Ina, 86 and 83, who attended the ceremony, “he means even more to America. It takes our nation too long sometimes to say so—because Sergeant Shemin served at a time when the contributions and heroism of Jewish Americans in uniform were too often overlooked. But, William Shemin saved American lives. He represented our nation with honor. And, so it is my privilege, on behalf of American people, to make this right and finally award the Medal of Honor to Sergeant William Shemin.”